Opinion: The Beginning of the End of Howard Homecoming’s Glory Days

Howard University alum Julian Kimble mourns over the dilution of the school’s famed homecoming event, Yardfest

Ten years ago, The Wire’s third season opened with the destruction of the Franklin Terrace Towers, a collection of high-rise buildings that served as a central location for the Barksdale Organization’s drug operation. Their demolition signaled aggressive change for those immediately affected, but also for the show as a whole. At Howard University’s Homecoming celebration last year, when the Fire Marshall shut down Yardfest—a traditionally free event known for live performances by music superstars and its sentimental reunion element—I identified with the feeling of watching those towers fall. As an HU alum, a huge part of my formative years had imploded right before my eyes. Season three of The Wire served as a transitional period for the show, providing monumental changes to the acclaimed drama’s narrative. As Howard Homecoming enters its 90th year, Yardfest as it has previously existed is no more. For this reason, I lament the death of a tradition and feel for current and future Howard students whose Yardfest memories may never be quite the same. The mythical status attached to Howard’s homecoming celebration has snowballed over the years, as its history draws thousands of alumni and an assortment of unaffiliated people familiar with the legend to D.C. each October. Though there’s a week’s worth of festivities, Yardfest—which takes place on the Friday of homecoming week—had always been its gem.

Through the years, it’s gained notoriety for drawing the biggest names in hip-hop. There’s famous footage of the Notorious B.I.G. performing in 1995. Jay-Z and DMX have appeared in the past, as did an on-the-cusp Kanye West in 2003, when he was less of a commodity than that year’s marquee attractions Juelz Santana, Young Gunz and Nelly. Recent years have seen Young Jeezy give his second performance since 2005, as well as sets from Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, Pusha T, Big Sean, Meek Mill, T.I. and a surprise appearance from Drake. This year’s version of Yardfest, however, will be vastly different, as the live performers will be replaced by the DJ sets featuring Biz Markie, DJ Drama, and DJ Quicksilva. The vendors will remain and there still be music in some capacity, but its pulse has been eviscerated. This radical move was motivated by 2013’s aforementioned clusterfuck. Last year’s Yardfest was overshadowed by an incident that left nine people injured after a restless crowd tried to force their way onto the grassy quadrangle where the event is held. This chaos was due to confusion and frustration about the $5 entry fee for something which had always been free of charge. Left with a black eye from the disorder via bad press, Howard decided to make the event free once again, but without the component which made it popular. “It was the university’s decision to make sure what happened last year didn’t happen again and that we aren’t branded in that negative light,” Homecoming coordinator Zenani Greenwell told the Washington Post earlier this month. Already punch-drunk from rumblings of financial mismanagement, the university made the drastic decision to preserve its prestige. Anyone who attended Yardfest last year shouldn’t be surprised by this resolution, but that doesn’t make its gutting any less disappointing. On another level, the disembowelment of Yardfest is the harshest possible reminder that a valued period in many lives is officially over. Upon getting confirmation that there would be no live performers at Yardfest this year, I realized that this Friday would be the first since I was a teenager 12 years ago that I would not be in attendance. It’s the type of occurrence that people would request time off from work to experience, but that’s unlikely with the new format. While people would make the necessary arrangements to see the performances, they also did it to reunite with fellow alums they hadn’t seen in years. For the younger demographic, this new iteration of Yardfest doesn’t warrant that investment of time. Although Yardfest becomes less about the action on stage and more about catching up with old friends as you get older, it simply isn’t Yardfest without the presence of live music. It’s heartbreaking that Howard arrived at this decision, but if you paid close attention to Yardfest over the past few years, you know it was inevitable. The moment Drake galloped onto the stage wearing a red Howard crewneck in 2012 and incited mania from a crowd of 22,000, Yardfest reached its apex. Not in terms of quality, but in terms of expectations. In evolving into a concert on steroids, it had reached its ceiling. Organizers took on the nearly impossible task of topping that, attempting to repurpose it as a festival in the same vein as Made in America. It didn’t work, as more people remember the flashing lights and headlines from last year rather than who the headliner was. However, the end of Yardfest doesn’t mean the end of Howard Homecoming and what it has come to represent. Despite the collective dismay surrounding Yardfest’s demise, attempts have been made to conserve the sanctity of Homecoming as a whole. Meccafest, an independently organized music and arts festival featuring performances from Future, Jeremih, Rae Sremmurd, Elle Varner and more, will be held on Friday during the hours Yardfest would typically occupy. Though it will take place far away from Howard on St. Elizabeth’s East campus in Southeast D.C., it’s a valiant effort to keep the spirit of Yardfest alive. In addition, a concert featuring Fabolous and Dom Kennedy will take place at the D.C. Armory on Saturday night. Furthermore, events like the Homecoming Parade, the football game, and its corresponding tailgate uphold the customary homecoming practices. In fact, the tailgate will likely supplant Yardfest as the hub where people convene to reminisce on old memories and create new ones. Yardfest’s collapse may be a grating reminder that you’re getting older, but it will bring other homecoming events to the forefront, increasing their relevance. Although the fall of the towers represented a pivotal shift on The Wire, the show’s main themes prevailed. Howard University’s 90th Homecoming Celebration will always be remembered due to the dilution of Yardfest and the resulting sadness, but this doesn’t tarnish the reputation of something that’s built such an esteemed legacy. The Wire didn’t end after its third season, so Howard Homecoming must forge ahead without Yardfest. Of course it will be missed, but homecoming is much bigger than one event. Julian Kimble has written for Complex, the Washington City Paper, Billboard, HipHopDX and more. Follow him on Twitter here.